Closing the Border to Asylum Seekers Won’t Stop Coronavirus

The Trump administration has closed the northern and southern borders to many non-citizens, with some exceptions, including those entering the U.S. for commercial purposes. 

Asylum-seekers are not on this list of exceptions.

Instead, the administration plans to turn back anyone seeking asylum: a direct violation of our laws and our international treaty obligations. Even in the time of pandemic, shuttering our doors is not the answer.

Asylum seekers—including a 10-day-old infant—arrive in Tijuana, Mexico. (Daniel Arauz / Creative Commons)

coalition of public health experts and human rights organizations have urgently pressed the administration to take a different path—especially along the southern border with Mexico—where thousands of people are living in makeshift camps as a result of U.S. policies that have left them stranded there during immigration proceedings.

These experts argue that now is the time to rethink policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)—more commonly known as Remain in Mexico—a Trump administration policy that has been in operation since January 2019 that forces migrants, many of them asylum-seekers, to live in Mexico while awaiting the outcome of their immigration proceedings.

MPP, part of a broader Trump administration assault on the U.S. tradition of supporting refugees, has been a humanitarian disaster. More than 60,000 people have been returned to Mexico, forced to rely primarily upon volunteer assistance, as the U.S. takes no responsibility for stranding them.

They live in makeshift, unsanitary and unsafe camps spread along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and are vulnerable to every kind of exploitation imaginable, from robbery and kidnapping, to trafficking, sexual assault, and murder.

Not surprisingly, such living conditions are unhealthy, and many people, especially children, have become ill with common and easily curable or preventable sicknesses.

Right now, however, as far as we know, the coronavirus has not yet reached these camps. And that is why public health experts and immigration experts are begging the Trump administration to end MPP and allow those already in MPP immigration court proceedings and others waiting at the border seeking asylum to enter the U.S.

The close living conditions and difficulty maintaining routine safety habits—like constant hand-washing—could allow the novel coronavirus to spread quickly and easily once it gets a footing in these camps.

Allowing people to enter the United States now would actually reduce the risks for everyone, according to experts, who argue that new transmissions in the U.S are occurring within the country—not as a result of foreign travel.

As long as the U.S. government takes common-sense precautions in the process of admitting these individuals and in ensuring that they have places to stay, the risks of transmission seem low. Presumably, such precautions are already underway, since inspectors will still be examining U.S. citizens and other travelers allowed to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. Expanding precautions to the group of undocumented migrants waiting at the border may involve more costs and personnel, but it is not impossible if the government has the will to do so.

I understand that the tremendous uncertainty surrounding the novel coronavirus is frightening. As countries shut down their borders and order lockdowns in our homes, we are all absorbing the message that survival depends on distance.

But survival also depends on kindness, compassion and taking care of each other. There are ways to keep safe without abandoning our international obligations or our humanity.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Trump administration knew, but chose to ignore, the ramifications of coronavirus, and made little preparation to keep America safe. It is hardly surprising then, that the administration’s immigration agencies have done too littletoo late in attempting to slow the spread of the virus, ranging from failing to close immigration courts to refusing to release people in immigration detention.

Nor is it surprising that the Trump administration is recognizing no responsibility for the fate of those who are living precariously in Mexico as a result of its cruel immigration policies.

It could, however, make some amends by ending MPP and admitting asylum seekers right now.

Bad policy has immediate consequences, but it also has often unforeseen effects that will shape the fate of millions. We have seen the immediate results of cruel immigration policies that have banned immigrants based on their religion, denied admission to asylum seekers and stranded thousands at our southern border.

We may soon see the unforeseen consequences of such policies when they interact with the relentless nature of a pandemic. Before it is too late, we should take care of those we have abandoned.

The Trump administration long ago washed its hands of the responsibility to care for asylum-seekers, but it must reverse course now for the health and well-being of everyone.

You can scrub your hands, Mr. Trump—but you can’t scrub your conscience.


The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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About

Mary Giovagnoli is the former Executive Director of Refugee Council USA.  She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Immigration Policy in the Department of Homeland Security from January 2016 to January 2018.